Wild Shrimp Company

What's really wild are the prices.

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I almost didn't want to give Wild Shrimp Company space on this Cheap Eats page. Sure, the place is absurdly inexpensive — for less than $23, I purchased a feast for four consisting of a truly Brobdignagian portion of jambalaya; a hearty box of fried chicken, fish and shrimp with red beans and rice and a corn muffin; half a po' boy with a cup of gumbo; a dozen or so fried olives and a mess of grit cakes.

And the food at Wild Shrimp is good. Damn good.

That's the problem. I could easily have slotted them in for an honest-to-goodness send up in CL's Restaurant Review spot and, depending on return visits, Wild Shrimp could easily have garnered four stars. Yeah, the food's that good.

What held me back? Well, the place is a classic Cheap Eats spot, occupying that little outbuilding in the corner of the Haslam's Book Store parking lot. There's no atmosphere, per se, unless you count the genuine smile of the guy at the counter. You'll probably end up eating your food on the hood of your car because, no doubt, there's no way you'll be able to wait until you get home.

Start with the corn muffin, glistening with a top that's sticky sweet, the interior steamy and decadently moist, the flavor loaded with toasty corn and a dose of sugar, easily the best corn bread to be had in the Bay area. Grit cakes are almost as good, the crisp, fried crust hiding a rich and creamy cornmeal center. Wild Shrimp's deep-fried olives taste like any others — all a-fury with brine and salt and crunch.

Wild Shrimp Company's eponymous shellfish — sourced from nearby Bama Sea Products — are smaller than you'd expect, but the dainty sea bugs pack a huge hit of fresh shrimp flavor. Partly that's because the restaurant's kitchen is skilled with a fryer, the food a perfect deep brown, well-seasoned and rarely overcooked. Mahi strips are almost as good as the shrimp and the chicken is just fine.

Sides of red beans and rice come in pasty mush form, easily forgiven when the flavor of Cajun spices and smoky sausage hits your tongue. That's harder to do with jambalaya, but even there the flavors are so powerful you might find yourself forgetting the drastically overcooked rice that's more liquid than solid. Wild Shrimp's gumbo works, but its overly-subdued flavor leaves it the odd man out in one of the most sensationally seasoned meals of the year.

Yeah, I'd give this meal four stars. I'd also eat at Wild Shrimp again before I'd eat at just about any other joint in downtown St. Pete. And for these prices, I'd be able to bring about a dozen friends.

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